The Summer 2023 CABB Challenge
NEW VOICES FROM ABOVE AND BELOW
when i grow up
by Linda S Barth
“It takes courage to grow up
and become who you really are.”
~ e.e. cummings
The little boy stole a quick peek through the classroom doorway, then wriggled back to a spot where no one would see him. Clutching a notebook and freshly sharpened pencil gouged with toothy indentations, he shifted his weight from one boot-clad foot to the other. The lesson in there just kept going on and on and on, making it seem as if he’d been waiting for hours. Those big kids must really love school. Well, he did, too, but right now he had something important to do, and he needed them to stop talking and leave so he could get on with it.
Their discussion might be interesting if he could figure out what they were talking about. So many words he’d probably never be able to spell correctly, let alone understand. Words like revolution, bicentennial, declaration, and repre-something or other. Nope, not a clue. Now the word cannons, he knew what that one meant – well, sort of. He was pretty sure it was a kind of gun, and that made it a bad word. Guns hurt people. Only policemen should have guns, not people like his dad.
His lips quivered. He didn’t like thinking about anything to do with where he used to live or what had happened there, like how his mom had…had gone away. Gone away forever. He pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind, grateful it was easier today than it had been yesterday or the day before. Mary had told him it was okay to let himself think about the good times, the happy memories. He didn’t want to forget them, but as for the others, better to put those in a make-believe box, lock it up tight, and throw away the key.
He shook his head. Time to refocus on his mission. But, man, they were still talking in there! How much longer could they keep at it?
Suddenly, as if hands had been slapped over their mouths, all the voices died away. At last! He dared a quick look, then ducked back into the corridor. The big kids were gathering up their books and papers and – of course – they were starting to talk again, but now it was just chatter. They’d be out in the hallway in just a few seconds, and he didn’t want them to think he’d been spying on them, even though he sort of had been. Manners and good behavior were really important down here. No way would he let it seem as if he were too young or too dumb to know that.
He retreated several yards back down the passageway, then began retracing his steps just as the students strolled toward him. His mouth widened in a grin. He’d handled things just fine, further proof he wasn’t “a waste of space” after all. Well, at least no one down here ever called him things like that. They’d all made him feel welcome in his new home, even the big kids like Jamie and Brooke and Michael, and they were almost teenagers. Kids that age could be mean sometimes, but they weren’t, well, not most of them anyway.
“Hey, Alex!” Jamie’s smile warmed his heart. “What are you doing here?”
Before he could explain himself, Michael pointed to the pencil and notebook. “It’s almost lunch time. You don’t have a class right now. No one does. Why don’t you come with us to the dining chamber?”
“Maybe he’s looking to do some extra work, score some bonus points.” Jared laughed through his sneer. “Trying to be the teacher’s pet, Alex?”
His face burned. “No! I just need to ask him a question, that’s all!”
“Yeah? About what? I bet you’re here because you’re failing some class or something, and you need to beg for mercy, right?”
“That’s not true! I’m here because – because –” He did his best to glare at the older boy. “It’s personal!”
Jared snickered. “What’s that supposed to mean? I think you better tell us the truth or –”
“Knock it off, Jared!” Jamie scowled at her classmate. “Just because you need all the help you can get, doesn’t mean everyone else does, too.”
“Whatever it is, it’s Alex’s business, not ours,” Brooke added. “And besides, it’s mean to tease people, especially someone younger than you. You’re twelve and he’s only seven. You should know better!”
“Brooke is right.” Their teacher’s voice reverberated from the doorway. “Jared, perhaps you intended your remarks to be funny. But you need to remember that sometimes a person’s words can be taken the wrong way, and it’s always better to think before you speak.”
Jared seemed to shrink several inches. “I’m sorry, Vincent,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Like you said, I guess I was just trying to be funny.”
“It’s not me you need to apologize to.” Vincent glanced pointedly in another direction.
“Sorry, Alex. I was just goofing around. I didn’t mean what I said.”
Jamie glared at him. “Then you shouldn’t have said it in the first place!”
Vincent laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Jamie, let them work it out on their own, please.”
“Okay.” She nodded encouragingly. “Go ahead, Alex. Say what you’re feeling.”
He stood as tall as he could, took a deep breath, and looked straight at Jared. “I’m not going to say what you did is okay because it’s not. But I accept your apology. And don’t tease me anymore!”
As he watched Jamie, Brooke, and Michael exchange admiring glances, he knew he’d done the right thing. He’d said it exactly the way Jamie had coached him when he’d gone to her in tears over a misunderstanding with his new best friend Zach. And it worked! Jamie knew everything!
“Well, I guess that’s settled then.” Brooke nodded at the group. “Let’s go get some lunch.”
“Good idea!” Michael slung an arm around her shoulders. “I’m starving!”
She giggled and tilted her head toward him. “You’re always starving!”
“Hey, I’m a growing boy! Food is important to me.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned at her. “You know how to cook, right?”
Rolling their eyes at Brooke’s blushes, Jared and Jamie hurried after their friends. Then she paused and looked back. “We’ll save you a seat, Alex. Right, Jared?”
“Sure! No hard feelings, okay, kid?”
“Okay, I guess.” He wasn’t at all certain he trusted Jared’s change of heart, but it was better than being teased again, especially in front of Jamie.
As the older children disappeared around a curve in the passageway, he looked up at Vincent. “Can I talk to you for a minute, please?”
“Of course, you may, Alex. Would you like to talk on the way to the dining chamber?” He gestured toward the classroom. “Or we can sit in there where it’s quieter, whichever you’d like.”
“In there.” He led the way into the chamber and plopped his notebook and pencil, along with himself, onto the nearest bench. “It’s kind of private.”
Vincent pulled a second bench forward and sat facing him. “Then, know that whatever you tell me, it will stay between the two of us.”
He’d already figured his teacher would say something like that. It was why he’d come to him in the first place. But still, it was good to hear the words, and better still to know he could believe them.
“It’s about school. Well, not about school exactly. It’s about homework. Not all my homework, just some.”
“You’re having trouble with a particular assignment?”
“I really want to do it. But I can’t.” He reached for his notebook. “See, it’s this one.”
He flipped through the pages until he found one marked with a dog-eared corner. But instead of handing it to Vincent, he hugged it to his chest. This was harder than he’d imagined. The problem stemmed from one of Vincent’s assignments. What if he hurt his feelings by complaining about it? He should have gone to someone else, like Jamie or Mary or even Father. Looking down at the notebook as if he wished it would disappear, he chewed on his lip and tried to think of something to say.
“Alex, I would like to help you, but first I need to know what the problem is.” His teacher’s voice was warm and encouraging. “I’m sure the two of us can figure out how to solve it.”
He slowly raised his head. “Okay. I’ve been trying to do it myself, but I can’t. I don’t know how.” At Vincent’s encouraging nod, he continued, “You’re a grown-up, so you know more stuff than kids ‘cause you’ve been around for a lot longer.”
“That’s true. Older people have had more life experiences, so we should have learned a great deal after all that time.”
“Well, you’re not old like Father, but you still must know a lot, right?”
“I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned much in my twenty-eight years.”
“Wow! Twenty-eight! That’s —” He tilted his head, squinting as he did some fast mental math. “That’s twenty-one whole years more than me!”
Vincent smiled at him. “Clearly, it’s not math that’s causing you difficulties, Alex. You figured that out remarkably fast in your head. I’m not sure any other child in the first-year class could manage to do that. It’s something to be proud of.”
“I like numbers. They make sense. And they don’t all of a sudden change.” He relaxed his hold on the notebook and offered it to his teacher. “Letters do, though.”
He waited as Vincent scanned the words penciled, erased, and penciled in again on the wide-lined page, hoping that even half of them made sense the way he’d written them. He felt his heart race as his gaze darted from his teacher’s face to the notebook and back again, until – finally! – Vincent looked at him.
“Alex, you have explored some excellent ideas in your essay, but I think I see your problem.”
“Yeah, it’s spelling!” He frowned and bit his lower lip again. “Did I get anything right?”
Vincent shrugged. “A few words, but –”
He resisted the urge to snatch the notebook back, rip out the pages, and tear them into the tiniest pieces possible. “Only a few?” He couldn’t resist asking, even though he’d already known the answer even before Vincent had begun reading his story.
Vincent’s smile was gentle. “More than a few. But remember what we talked about in class. One of the most important things about writing is finding ways to express your ideas and feelings in words that reflect your true thoughts. The rest – spelling and punctuation – you’ll learn all that in time.”
“But I want to learn it now!” He barely noticed the volume of his voice ringing through the empty chamber. “I want my work to be right – exactly right!”
“And in time it will be. You’re just beginning to write sentences and arrange them into stories. You have wonderful ideas. Anyone can see that. But it takes a lot of practice and a lot of time to become a good writer.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” He scrunched his face to keep a tear from falling. “But isn’t there something I can do now?”
Vincent nodded. “You can try one of the options we talked about in class. You can dictate your story to an adult or an older child, or you can write as many words as possible and draw pictures to tell the rest of the story. Or you can sound out the words very carefully and spell them with letters that have the same sounds.”
“That sounding out thing didn’t work too good last time, Vincent.”
“True.” His teacher smiled. “Maybe one of the other methods would be more successful for you right now.”
“I think I’m going to try telling the story to someone and asking them to write it down. That sounds like a good one.” He nodded firmly, his mind made up. “But only until I learn how to spell better. Then, I’m gonna do it all by myself.”
“And I’m sure you’ll be very successful when that time comes. You already have shown you have a wonderful imagination and you’re very thoughtful. That combination of creativity and insight is what a good writer needs more than anything else.”
Some of those words were as tricky to understand as the ones he’d overheard during the big kids’ lesson, but the look on Vincent’s face told him it was all good. “Thanks!” He scrambled off the bench and reached for his notebook but was unable to tug it out of his teacher’s hand.
“You know, Alex, you are not the only person to ever struggle with spelling.”
Vincent shook his head. “It’s a very common problem. It always has been.” He flipped to a blank page. “May I write something here?”
He handed him the pencil, feeling slightly embarrassed at its disgraceful condition but relieved when Vincent didn’t seem to mind.
“There.” Vincent turned the notebook toward him. “What do you think that word says?”
Even though he had trouble figuring out spelling, he knew how most letters were supposed to sound, but in this word, they didn’t make a bit of sense. Ghoti? He shrugged but was determined to try his best.
Vincent shook his head.
“Ghosty!” No, that couldn’t be right. There wasn’t even an s in that mess of letters. He stared at the word so intently his eyes started to water. “Okay, I give up. What is it?”
He tilted his head at his teacher. “You’re making that up, right?”
“No, I’m not making it up. It really is fish.” Vincent turned the notebook toward himself and patted the seat next to him. “Here, I’ll show you.”
He hopped up onto the bench and sat close so he could see. Vincent was a good teacher, no doubt about that, but it was going to take some doing to make anyone believe this story.
“About one hundred twenty years ago, a book publisher named Charles Ollier sent a letter to his friend Leigh Hunt, a poet who, of course, was very interested in anything to do with words. In the letter, Mr. Ollier told his friend that his son, William, had found a new way to spell the word fish. G-h-o-t-i.”
“I bet William was trying to play a trick on his dad. Did he get in big trouble? Did his dad get really mad at him?”
“I’m sure he didn’t get mad. In fact, his father thought it was very funny. And besides, it’s true. You can spell fish like that.”
He stared at the word again. “How?”
“Watch.” Vincent began printing carefully on the lined page. “Do you know what this word is?”
He frowned. “I remember it was on the chart when you read us The Velveteen Rabbit, but I don’t remember what it is.”
“It’s the word rough. Look at the ending of the word. In it, gh sounds like f.” Vincent underlined the two letters, then printed another word.
“I know that one! Women – like on bathroom doors in places up in the city, right?”
Vincent chuckled. “Right.” He underlined the letter o. “In the word women, o sounds like our short i sound, doesn’t it?”
Okay. Somehow, maybe, this all might make sense. But not yet.
Vincent showed him a third word. This time, it was way too hard to figure out. “I don’t get that one.”
“It’s attention.” Vincent underlined the letters ti. “In this word, ti sounds like shh, right?” He pointed to the word ghoti again. “Let’s read it together, letter by letter.”
All of a sudden, there it was. He could see it! “Fish! It says fish!” He grinned so hard, he felt his cheeks twinge. “That is so awesome!”
Vincent grinned back at him. “So, you see, spelling can be very challenging, and a lot of people have difficulties with it, even grown-ups. But it can be fun, as well, to play around with letters and sounds.”
Although far from convinced anything involving spelling could actually be considered fun, he nevertheless decided to agree, as another idea popped into his head. “Maybe I’m not so bad at spelling after all!”
“I think that might be true.” Vincent handed back the notebook and pencil. “Now, you’d better get to the dining chamber before lunch is over.”
With that inspiration, he leaped to his feet. “Right after lunch, I’m gonna ask Jamie if she’ll write down my story for me. I’ve got some more ideas about the – the – what do you call it?”
“Yeah, that’s it, the topic!”
Vincent stood and began organizing his materials on the nearby table. “Would you like to share any of your ideas before you start writing again?”
“Sure! You know how the topic you gave us is ‘when I grow up’?” Well, that was dumb. Obviously, Vincent already knew what the topic was since he’d been the one to assign it. But he hadn’t seemed to notice how dorky his student sounded. Bolstered by that thought, he added, “I put a lot of ideas in my story already, but I’m not done yet.”
“Yes, I noticed you wrote that you might like to grow up to be a doctor or a professional baseball player or maybe an astronaut someday.”
Well, that was a surprise! Maybe he really wasn’t such a bad speller if Vincent had been able to figure that out from his attempts. “There’s one thing I’m not sure about, though. If I want to be any of those things when I grow up, I’m gonna have to go to school, like college and stuff, for a really, really long time, right?”
“Most professions do require a great deal of schooling or experience if you wish to be successful in them.”
He could feel himself frowning. “But then I’d have to move back up there.” He gestured toward the hidden city waiting far above them. “And…and…I don’t think I want to. I like it right here.”
Vincent leaned against the table. “Sometimes members of our community do move Above for various reasons. But you don’t have to make any decisions now, Alex, not for a very long time. You might change your mind over and over again between now and when you’re older.”
“Yeah, but what if I don’t? What if I do want to be an astronaut? Then, I’d have to go away and never come back!” He felt tears sting his eyes. “I’d miss you guys! What if I never see you again?!”
He watched something strange flicker in his teacher’s eyes, something he couldn’t entirely understand but recognized in a heartbeat. It was pain, the kind you never forget.
Seconds ticked by before Vincent spoke again. “If you decide to leave us someday, Alex, know that you can also choose to come back. You will always have a home here with us, no matter what. Even if many years pass, and you’re unable to stay in touch, we won’t forget you. You are part of us.”
Vincent looked away for a moment, that odd expression shimmering in his eyes once more. “And we will never give up on you. We will always be here, waiting to welcome you home again.”
His teacher seemed to be searching for something, and he felt the urge to stare into the shadows, too, and try to help him find it.
“I want you to promise you’ll always remember that.”
Alex nodded solemnly. “I will. I promise.” He picked up his pencil and notebook and headed for the chamber entrance, only to turn back. “Can I ask you one more thing, Vincent?”
“Of course, you may.”
“When you were seven, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Vincent bowed his head for a moment, then raised it with a soft sigh and the ghost of a smile. “Like you, I wanted to be many things. An explorer discovering amazing wonders around the world, a knight having adventures as a member of King Arthur’s court, an artist painting pictures of all the things I saw in my imagination and then showing my work in famous museums.”
His teacher’s smile grew, making him glad he’d asked.
“The world is full of possibilities…for a boy like you. You must follow your heart, Alex, and live every moment to its fullest. See everything, do everything, go everywhere. Be whatever you wish to be…That’s something else I hope you’ll always remember.”
“I’ll remember that, too.” He crossed his heart. Then, he darted forward and flung his arms around his friend. “You picked out a lot of cool things to be. But I’m glad you’re a teacher instead!”
Not waiting for Vincent to say another word, the child hurtled out of the chamber. Yet only seconds passed before he pivoted and raced back again. He should have waited for Vincent to walk to the dining chamber with him. That was the right thing to do. And maybe they could talk some more on the way.
He darted into the entryway, then jolted to a stop. Vincent was facing away from him, but his voice was as sharp and clear as broken glass. Who was his teacher talking to? He scanned the chamber’s reaches. There was no one else there.
Instinctively, he knew he should leave. He backed away on small, silent footsteps, then raced down the passageway with the words he’d just heard echoing within his heart. Something in them spoke to him, and he knew that someday he would understand what they meant.
What I’ve always wanted to be is…you.